January is the perfect moment to resolve to drink more water. Come to think of it February through December aregreat months to commit to this healthy habit, too. Bottled water is a notorious ripoff; it's often just pricey tap water in plastic bottles.
Tap water is the way to go. It's free and abundant. But before you drink it, you're going to want to assess (drinking water quality varies from place to place) and filter (which one you use should match your water's specific issues). Here's how.
If you don't know what's in your water, you don't know what needs filtering out.
If your H2O comes from a public water utility, check the Consumer Confidence Report, an annual report that lists the chemicals tested for in your water, as well as how your water is treated. Also worth a visit: Environmental Working Group's Tap Water Database. Enter your ZIP code to see what's been found in your water.
If you have a private well, it's up to you to privately test to find out what contaminants might be lurking. To help determine what to test for, start by calling your local health department. You should also scope out your neighborhood, looking for as any potential sources of contamination like pesticides if you live near orchards or animal waste from farms, heavy metals and chemicals from mines, industrial effluent, landfills, and so on.
Determine if you need a do-it-yourself kit or if you have to hire a professional to test your drinking water. DIY testing kits can be found at home improvement and hardware stores. These are adequate for identifying the presence of some of the most common contaminants. Some municipalities will even test your water for free — check with yours. If you're testing for something more obscure or a wide range of contaminants, you may need to all in a professional. Again, you can call your local public health or environmental quality offices for guidance or you can check with a state certified laboratory.
Private well owners should test their water at least annually. Test more often if there are significant potential changes in water quality (like seasonal applications of pesticides and fertilizers).
Everyone should test for lead! It can be present in pipes, solder, and even fixtures. Until you have your lead results back, always let your water run for a minute or two each morning. This will flush out the water that's been sitting in the pipes overnight. Don't like to waste? Use that water for your houseplants.
Once you have your test results, decide if you want to filter. If the answer is yes, it's time to choose a filter certified to remove the contaminant(s) of concern in your water. Keep in mind that no filter removes 100 percent of contaminants. They can get very close. Look for filters labeled as meeting NSF/ANSI standards, especially those that treat water for health, not just for aesthetic qualities like taste or color.
Don't know where to start? EWG's Water Filter Buying Guide is a great tool for cutting through all of the choices — water pitchers, countertop models, under-sink filters, filters that attach directly to your tap, and even whole-house models. Consider the life span of any filter when assessing the price; the most expensive systems are sometimes cheaper in the long run than the less expensive ones. Smaller pitcher filters may only have a life span of a hundred gallons, while a larger system may last though several thousand gallons. Do the math per gallon of water; you could be paying more with a pitcher than with a larger system.
To ensure effectiveness, be sure to maintain your filter properly. Follow manufacturer's directions. If you have a whole-house system for a well, take your yearly water appointments seriously. If you allow contaminants to build up, a filter's efficacy decreases and it can actually make your water worse by releasing bacteria or chemicals back into your water.
Water quality can change over time. Keep an eye on your local news and health advisories to stay abreast of any conditions that could pose new risks in municipal or well water.